“Nixon on the Beach”? I saw the High Definition Metropolitan Opera broadcast of John Adams’ Nixon in China at the Beach Cinemas, my favourite Toronto theatre. The Beach Cinemas actually have voicemail, and call you back with the most personalized service of any local cinema. While it is meant as a joke to speak of “Nixon on the beach, ” I came out of the theatre on a brilliant sunny afternoon, looking at the expanse of water immediately to the south in Lake Ontario. I felt wonderful.
While Nixon on the Beach is also an allusion to Philip Glass – a personal favourite and the other great minimalist opera composer of the past quarter century, e.g. Einstein on the Beach (1975)—after seeing Nixon in China I’m wondering if I need to revisit my earlier opinion. As I talk about the performance I saw broadcast from the Met today, I’ll reflect on both the production and the work, evidence that there’s a new (minimalist) sheriff in town. Famous as Glass has been, none of his operas are so easily intelligible as Nixon in China; and having said that, i believe it’s safe to predict that Adams’ popularity will continue to rise.
Here’s how I understand the three acts of the opera
- Act I is one of optimism at this great moment in history, including Nixon’s fascination with the magic of the event, in a segment beginning with his repetition of the word “news” over and over. The Mao we meet in the second scene is more philosopher than politician.
- Act II takes us deeper into China, first with Pat Nixon’s face-to-face encounters with the people, then at a surreal opera-within-the-opera where the real Madame Mao shows us her true (darker) colours.
- Act III, on the last night of the visit, is on a personal scale, concerning the juxtaposition of past and future. Each of the leaders reminisces with his wife, while Premier Chou En-Lai ponders the future
I came to the broadcast with some trepidations, having read a number of complaints about the singing by James Maddalena, who happens to have originated the role of Nixon almost a quarter of a century ago (the opera premiered in 1987). That leads us to the first, and possibly the most remarkable thing about Nixon in China.
Maddalena did not sound as though he’d be comfortable singing Verdi or Rossini anytime soon. But what of that? Maddalena nailed Nixon perfectly: in his manner, his look and his sound. When you think about it, Nixon’s loss to Kennedy in the 1960 electoral debate was all about style. Where JFK was cool on camera, Nixon sweated under the lights, just like any average guy. That’s Nixon. To portray him in an opera surely is to check your virtuosity at the door. A polished Nixon would be a misrepresentation, if not an out and out oxymoron. And so, while it’s true that Maddalena didn’t sound great, his sound was perfect for Nixon.
And so it is, in different ways for each of the characters:
- Mao Tse-Tung is a heldentenor, declaiming powerfully and sometimes ironically, sung by Robert Brubaker. While this may seem odd for the frail old man we see onstage, there’s nothing frail about his ideas or their impact.
- His wife Madame Mao is a ferocious coloratura soprano who dominates the stage whenever she is present, flawlessly sung by Kathleen Kim.
While these figures seem to push the action of the opera, just as they were agents for change in the world, two other characters represent the passionate side:
- Pat Nixon is a soprano who sings lyrical lines, and appears to be a bit like Richard Nixon’s conscience, or at least an influence upon her husband to bring out a warmer side of him. Janis Kelly’s Pat Nixon is a sympathetic witness to the Chinese people, and an uncooperative onlooker to the Revolutionary Ballet; her refusal to mutely sit in the audience electrifies the scene, and galvanizes Madame Mao.
- Chou En-Lai, the Chinese Prime Minister, presents the comparable reflections to those of Pat Nixon, in the person of Russell Braun’s smooth and eloquent baritone, including the remarkable summing up at the end of the opera, when he asks “How much of what we did was good”?
I believe Alice Goodman’s libretto is strongly influenced by two prominent textual sources:
- Mao’s “Little Red Book” was at one time a best-seller, known as Sayings of Chairman Mao. This book was a series of aphorisms about proper behaviour in the world of Communist China.
- The philosopher Confucius has long been known as a source, if not the traditional source of Chinese wisdom
Curiously, the libretto often breaks into streams of brilliant little aphorisms, as if we’re suddenly listening to a recitation of the little red book. And at one point, after a comment about Confucius, Mao, Madame Mao and her followers explode into a wonderfully ironic denunciation of Confucius, in a series of aphorisms. At this moment it’s as though we’re being treated to a fit of Confucius against Confucius. At that moment I couldn’t help but notice how the Little Red Book is indebted to Confucius, a fact that clearly wasn’t lost on Goodman.
Nixon in China begins as though it were the sequel to the Patrice Chereau Ring, which ends (after The Twilight of the Gods) with a stage full of people staring into the audience. Is it just a coincidence? The revolution has happened, and there they are, the People’s Army, singing and looking the audience in the eye.
In the Metropolitan opera production, a second-generation interpretation from director Peter Sellars, and conducted by the composer himself, there is a strong sense of additional depth. This is especially evident at the end, where Chou En-Lai is now shown in the process of dying from undiagnosed pancreatic cancer, an important piece of subtext that baritone Russell Braun revealed to us during the intermission. Chou alone of those onstage muses on the meaning of what they’ve been doing, then issues stoic lines bearing additional poignancy because of the physical subtext:
Just before dawn the birds begin,
The warblers who prefer the dark,
The cage-birds answering. To work!
Outside this room the chill of grace
Lies heavy on the morning grass.
I’m looking forward to comparing the Met’s interpretation with the Canada Opera Company’s import production directed by James Robinson. The encore broadcast of the Met producion is four weeks away, on Saturday March 12th.